From Beijing 2008 to Beijing 2022: fourteen years and a world of difference

When China last hosted the Olympics, in the summer of 2008, the country was a vastly different place.

The Beijing 2008 Summer Games was China’s coming-out party to the world. Less than two decades after People’s Liberation Army troops crushed pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square, China was eager to show the world how much it had changed.

The country opened itself up to journalists to travel more freely without advance clearance. International websites blocked behind the Great Firewall of censorship were temporarily made accessible. And Chinese officials, anxious to make the games a success, even cleaned up the notoriously awful air by closing factories and limiting cars on the roads.

And in a break from normal practice, the communist-run government even set up three designated ‘protest zones’ in city parks for demonstrators to lawfully gather, albeit with prior police approval.

That was then. The Beijing Winter Games this year will bear no resemblance to the 2008 Summer Games. That’s because of how much China has changed in the intervening 14 years, and particularly since the ascendance to power of President Xi Jinping.

Under Xi, China is far richer, more powerful, more confident and more influential on the global stage. Xi’s China is no longer eager for international recognition of its success and prowess or craving world’s approbation; it is more impervious to Western reproach. The new China under Xi makes no secret of its ambition to be the dominant power of the next century, and it doesn’t hide its disdain for the West and specifically the US, which is seen as a power in decline.

The self-confidence appears justified, on the surface at least.

A graphic compiled by the Washington Post, showing China statistics from 2008 to 2022, gives some hint of the reasoning behind the hubris. In 2008, China’s GDP was US$4.6 trillion; today it’s $18 trillion.

China was an export-driven economy with more than half its population living in rural areas. The internet was in its infancy and no iPhones were sold in the country. Now, domestic consumption, not exports, is the main economic driver and the majority of the population is urban. China is a vast market for Apple products and Chinese tech companies like Alibaba and Tencent have emerged as global giants. China is now second to the US in the number of billionaires.

China’s military spending has also skyrocketed from an estimated US$78 billion in 2008 to more than US$250 billion today, in current dollar terms. When the 2008 Summer Olympics were held, China had 73 miles of high-speed rail lines; today, the network is 25,000 miles, and its ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure program promises to expand lines even further into Europe and Southeast Asia.

Where once China’s dictum was to keep its head low and bide its time, a new generation of Chinese diplomats, dubbed ‘wolf warriors’ after a Chinese action movie hero, have made a point of aggressively countering any perceived slight or criticism, often with smash-mouth insults and chest-thumping bravado more common to Pyongyang than Beijing. And the country’s more assertive voice is amplified by the increasing global reach of its international media as they push China’s story to the world.

China’s newly assertive diplomats and its state media are backed up by an army of patriotic young nationalists known as ‘little pinks’, who grew up thoroughly indoctrinated in the Chinese Communist Party ethos. When anyone—an American athlete, a basketball team general manager, a fashion brand or an actor like Keanu Reeves—dares to speak out or tweet about an issue that goes against China’s official policy, they will be subjected to an online boycott and savaged by the army of internet trolls.

China’s hubris began immediately after the 2008 Summer Games, with the global financial crisis that wreaked havoc on banking systems and exposed debt weaknesses in the US and Europe—but which China escaped relatively unscathed. When Obama administration officials (including then–vice president Joe Biden) trekked to China seeking Beijing’s help to stabilise global finances and bail out the euro, they were typically greeted with lectures about the need for America to get its debt in order and protect China’s investment in US Treasury securities.

In a speech last year, marking the 100th anniversary of the CCP, Xi sent an unmistakable message that he sees this era as ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’, and no country can stand in China’s way. ‘The Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us,’ Xi declared. ‘Anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.’

China’s sense of pride and its move to regain its historic greatness were further boosted by the global coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 was first detected in Wuhan, whose residents suffered horrendously in the early weeks of 2020 and where the pandemic response was mishandled. But China has since been seen as successfully containing the virus’s spread through its often harsh ‘zero Covid’ strategy that has seen millions of people locked in their homes and mass testing. Western countries, particularly the US and UK, are seen as having botched their handling of the pandemic, leadings to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Now China is hosting a Winter Olympics under strict Covid protocols that will largely isolate the athletes and other attendees from ever mixing with ordinary Chinese and prohibit them from venturing beyond the enclosed Olympic Village. Foreign visitors to Beijing won’t be able to wander the city and marvel at the futuristic skyscrapers because China doesn’t need to show off to outsiders.

Unlike 2008, this time there is no opening of travel, no easing of the Great Firewall of internet restrictions and no designated protest zones, because protests now are effectively outlawed. Where China once treated foreign journalists with some wary respect, wanting to show off the country’s accomplishments, today journalists are treated like the enemy; reporters from major outlets like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post had their visas revoked and were effectively expelled.

Will the 2022 Winter Olympics be a success? Most likely so, because Xi has ordered it to be, and China has shown it can pull off large and awe-inspiring feats, like hosting an international sporting event during a pandemic.

But is the self-confidence justified? That’s a more difficult question. Beneath the veneer of a rising power lie pressure points, and uncertainties.

China is facing a demographic time bomb. Various government schemes and exhortations have not been able to reverse a declining birthrate, which hit a record low in 2021. Domestic debt—of local governments, corporations and households—is a growing and unchecked problem. The property sector is wobbly and building infrastructure no longer yields the growth it once did. China’s insistence on clinging to a zero-Covid problem appears unsustainable and a drag on the economy, and China is facing a major growth slowdown.

Xi this year is about to embark on a third five-year term in power, indicating a return to personalised, strongman rule that had been jettisoned in the last three decades of collective leadership and a rotating presidency. Such a concentration of power in the hands of one man in the past has led to more tumult than stability.

And for a country at the peak of its power, China remains remarkably prickly and reactive to even the slightest hint of criticism.

So expect a well-organised Olympics, because staging big events is what China does best. But this time the mood seems more anxious and uncertain, because of Covid, economic crosswinds and other potential pitfalls. China will once again project the image of a powerful nation. What the leadership may not want the world to see is that behind the curtain, the emperor has no clothes.